Headlines and Happenings from Austin and Beyond
"Black Americans were not only the founders but also the backbone and strength of the Texas Republican Party.
Texas Republicans have a rich heritage of diversity, and that diversity continues today." A Juneteenth statement from the Texas GOP, showing mastery of the party's Reconstruction-era history but some fuzziness on more recent events
Quote of the Week
The new City Council meets today (Thursday), absent a couple of old hands, but joined by a couple of new ones: newly enrolled Mike Martinez and Sheryl Cole. On Thursday's agenda: can Green pump on for a few more years, will McMansions shrink to McBungalows, and more. See "Beside the Point."
Let's see where the money goes: Despite sidelong, half-accurate sneers from "News of the Weird" (under "Government in Action"), the AISD budget process is not without its virtues starting with the public hearing tonight (Thursday) at Carruth Administration Center, 1111 W. Sixth, 7-11:45pm. Sign up today to speak your two cents.
A Bastrop judge rejected defense arguments that new evidence might have changed the verdict in the capital murder trial of Rodney Reed, convicted in 1998 of the 1996 murder of Stacey Stites. Judge Reva Towslee-Corbett ruled that testimony unavailable in Reed's original trial would not have changed the outcome; Reed's attorneys said they anticipate appealing to the Court of Criminal Appeals.
Travis Co. Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir has temporarily halted publishing public records on the Internet, citing concerns about revealing individual citizens' personal data. "I am a strong supporter of open government; however, my obligation as an elected official is to respond to legitimate public concern and to do everything within my authority to protect people now," she said. "For 150 years, the goal has been to make government open and records accessible. With the increasing threat of personal-identity theft, we have to rethink how to do that." DeBeauvoir said her staff has been working to redact personal info from public records since the Legislature authorized county clerks to remove Social Security numbers from records in 2005. She said the office hopes to have edited versions of the records back online as soon as possible; hard copies are still available at the county office at 5501 Airport. Anyone concerned about info filed with the county clerk's office can call 854-9188. Lee Nichols
In other county news, the NAACP of Austin and its president Nelson Linder, Travis County resident Sonia Santana, and state attorney general candidate David Van Os are suing Travis Co. Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir and Texas Secretary of State Roger Williams to prevent the use of electronic voting machines in November. Represented by the Texas Civil Rights Project, the plaintiffs charge that the Hart Intercivic eSlate voting machines used by Travis County provide no true way to perform an independent re-count since they don't print a paper copy of each ballot, even though Hart has printer options that it makes available to states that require one. This leaves voters at the mercy of trusting Hart's software, which is not open to public scrutiny since the state lets Hart keep its software codes as a proprietary secret. The suit charges that voters have a right to such a re-count, and that Travis Co. voters' rights under the equal-protection clause of the state constitution are being violated by allowing hand re-counts in counties that don't use paperless machines, while not allowing re-counts in Travis. DeBeauvoir responded that she actually agrees that "a paper audit trail would make a wonderful addition to our re-count tools," but she worries that "people who want a paper audit trail seem to think it will be a panacea that will solve all problems." L.N.
Stand up for your right to make tacos! Around 40 taco-stand vendors have organized a trade association in response to the city's effort to regulate how they operate. Around a dozen vendors gathered in the shade at Plaza Saltillo to discuss a multipronged strategy. The organization, called AVATACO, is establishing quality standards that every card-carrying member must follow, and it will appoint an internal inspector. The group will conduct the first census of taco stands in order to determine how many are actually operating in the city. And the members plan to invite the city to a taco-tasting festival in order to build public support. "Our goal is to show the city that we want to do the right thing," said Esmael Lozano, who ran the meeting. "We want rules that make sense for us and the community. We just want to be able to work." Michael May
On Thursday, city and county deputies could be seen high-fiving each other Downtown with handfuls of handicapped hangtags seized from the vehicles of able-bodied Austinites using them illegally. A combined sting operation took 15 of the blue placards out of circulation that day alone, and the violators went home with multiple tickets and hundreds of dollars in fines. The three-day sting netted a total of 25 hangtags, and deputies issued 45 tickets. Travis Co. Constable Bruce Elfant says the departments are already planning their next operation. M.M.
It's been a tough month for Austin media executives. Just a few weeks after managers of both the local CBS and NBC television affiliates were fired, Clear Channel Communications on Monday replaced longtime radio market manager Dusty Black. No reason was given, except for the ubiquitous "left to pursue other opportunities." He's been replaced by Pam McKay, most recently a sales executive for "The Mix," KHMX, in Houston. She will oversee Clear Channel's six local stations: KVET (98.1FM), KASE-101, Jammin 105.9, KISS-FM (96.7), The River (102.3FM) and AM1300, "The Zone." Black was also a regional vice-president, responsible for markets in Corpus Christi and McAllen/Brownsville, but those duties will go to Houston-based Mark Kopelman. Black and McKay did not immediately return calls. Kevin Brass
According to preliminary numbers released by the FBI on June 12, reports of violent crime nationwide rose 2.5% in 2005 from 2004, while property crimes such as burglary and theft declined 1.6%. Overall, reports of murder and robbery were up more than 4% each (the Midwest leading the way with a jump of nearly 6%), while aggravated assaults increased nearly 2%. Reports of forcible rape, on the other hand the most underreported violent crime dropped about 2%. The drop in property crimes was led by a 2.5% drop in theft, while burglary reports increased by just under 1%. In Austin, the overall incidents of violent crime decreased; the number of murders remained constant, with 26 reported to the FBI in each year; reports of forcible rape increased slightly, from 303 to 312; and robberies dropped from just over 1,400 to just under 1,200. While Austin saw an increase in burglary in 2005 nearly 7,300 reports, up from about 6,800 in 2004 reports of stolen cars and other theft decreased overall. To read the entire report, go to www.fbi.gov/ucr/2005preliminary/index.htm. Jordan Smith
At press time Wednesday, indie candidates Kinky Friedman and Carole Keeton Strayhorn were still waiting for word on whether they'll make the November ballot, as expected. The Texas Secretary of State has hired TELA Technologies, a private Houston firm, to verify their petition signatures and is expected to announce the outcome of the verification process this week. The two gubernatorial hopefuls had to collect 45,540 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. Strayhorn, who wants to be identified as "Grandma" on the ballot, submitted 223,000, and Friedman turned in 169,574. Amy Smith
Beyond City Limits
Speaking of the governor's race, in the final leg of his "Strayhorn Reality Tour," Democrat Chris Bell chided Strayhorn in Austin Tuesday, citing her history of shifting positions on major political issues, from toll roads to privatization of children's health services. "Carole Strayhorn can change her name, and she can change her positions, but she can't change history," Bell said. Strayhorn's camp has tried to ignore Bell's criticisms by framing the governor's race as a showdown between two main players: Strayhorn and Perry. Still, her campaign couldn't ignore Bell altogether. In a press statement, the campaign tried to illustrate Bell's own contradiction on toll roads, citing a comment Bell made in February "toll roads are fine " However, Bell's full quote, taken from "Political State Report," an online news source, actually reads this way: "Toll roads are fine, but paying tolls on roads built by taxes is wrong, and the rampant corruption in the Trans-Texas Corridor is just more evidence that Rick Perry is taking ethics lessons from Tom DeLay." A.S.
U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks will hear arguments Monday to determine whether Tom DeLay's name will appear on the November ballot. The Texas Democratic Party is trying to block Republican efforts to pick another candidate for the ballot, since DeLay has packed his bags and moved to Virginia, making him ineligible to run in Texas. A temporary restraining order preventing the GOP from changing the ballot remains in effect through today (Thursday), when the case was initially scheduled for a hearing in state court, before the Republican Party got the case transferred to the federal court. A.S.
The U.S. Department of Justice has begun a review of the deaths of nearly 200 people who died after being shot with a less-than-lethal electroshock gun during an encounter with police, reports USA Today. "These deaths raise a question in our mind that should be examined," Glenn Schmitt, acting director of the DOJ's National Institute of Justice told the daily. The agency will enlist the help of various groups including the National Association of Medical Examiners, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct the review, which will begin this fall and could take up to two years to complete. Steve Tuttle, vice-president of communications for Taser International, the leading maker of electroshock guns, says Taser supports the government's review. "In-custody deaths are a tragic aspect of law enforcement and have been occurring as long as police have been enforcing the law," he wrote in an e-mail. "The more we can understand and research the circumstances leading to in-custody deaths, the more opportunity law enforcement will have to develop tactics and procedures that may help prevent these unfortunate incidents." J.S.
Last week, the Senate handed President Bush a big fat "emergency spending bill" worth $94.5 billion. The birthday boy gleefully clapped his hands and, with a mouth full of cake, thanked our lawmakers in their efforts to "fight terrorism, defend our homeland, enforce our borders, and fulfill our moral obligation to help our fellow Americans in need." Let's be clear, here. A rough breakdown of the payout is as follows: $66 billion to the Pentagon, $3.7 billion to domestic flood-control projects (leaving the Gulf states to hope, fingers crossed, that they'll get a chunk of the $5.2 billion contained in the bill for direct grants to states), and enough dough to send an additional 1,000 Border Patrol agents and 6,000 National Guard troops to the Mexican border, as well as build a prison large enough to detain 4,000 arrested immigrants. This is after the Senate, at the president's request, removed $14 billion that would have gone to getting people in the Gulf Coast back on their feet, specifically aiding farmers and the seafood industry, as well as the Democrat's bid to throw some money into domestic port security and critically needed medical services for veterans. Diana Welch
Hurricane Rita evacuees' unemployment benefits are slated to end this Saturday. As of June 10, only 158 evacuees from Texas' 22-county region directly impacted by Rita were still getting a check from the Texas Workforce Commission, down from 691 people as of May 6. "What we're seeing is people returning to work," TWC spokesman Larry Jones said. Benefits for Hurricane Katrina evacuees ran out June 3. Cheryl Smith
With record-high summer temperatures on the horizon, TexasLawHelp.org is providing info on how low-income families can lower their utility bills. Many low-income households may be eligible for weatherization services such as the weather stripping and the installation of free energy-efficient appliances. New state rules also allow the waiver of utility deposits for do-mestic violence victims. For more info, go to www.texaslawhelp.org, click on the consumer tab, and go to the link for public utilities. Kimberly Reeves
The Georgetown City Council unanimously passed a resolution in favor of producer take-back recycling for computer and electronic waste last week, becoming the first Texas city to formally call on the state Legislature to enact policy requiring electronics manufacturers and vendors to recycle discarded products. "Local governments should not be shouldered with the financial burden of recycling and disposing of toxic electronic waste," said Robin Schneider of Texas Campaign for the Environment. E-waste is the fastest- growing waste stream in municipal solid waste, according to a TCE statement, and it's the largest source of dangerous heavy metals, including lead and mercury, in U.S. landfills. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported this month that computers from UT, the Texas Department of Human Services, and a school district in Irving, Texas, were found in an illegal dump in rural Missouri. TCE estimates that 50-80% of the e-waste taken to U.S. recyclers is actually being shipped illegally to developing countries. Without producer recycling, TCE says local governments and taxpayers in Texas would have to spend $606 million dollars to properly dispose of obsolete computers and televisions over the next 10 years. For more, see www.texasenvironment.org. D.M.
The West Cypress Hills subdivision plagued with development issues that included a number of stop-work orders and a lawsuit over contamination of Lick Creek with construction debris scrubbed its plans and returned to Travis County yesterday with a new development team and a renewed commitment to addressing its issues. The development team, now led by investor Alan Topfer, has pledged to meet the county's interim water-quality regulations, as well as committing to get off well water and onto surface water to avoid draining neighbors' water wells. The development currently has about 50 houses. The revised first phase of West Cypress Hills, off Highway 71 past Bee Caves, will have about 400 homes. Commissioners approved the revised plans, with Commissioner Ron Davis abstaining. K.R.
The annual rate of cleanup for Superfund sites has fallen more than 50% since 2001, compared to the four years prior to the Bush administration. So says "The Toll of Superfund Neglect: Toxic Waste Dumps & Communities at Risk," a report jointly released last week by the Washington D.C.-based Center for American Progress and Center for Progressive Reform. The Superfund is a multibillion dollar environmental program initiated in 1983 during the Reagan administration to inventory and clean up the nation's worst abandoned toxic-waste sites. According to the report, one in four Americans lives within three miles of one of the 1,244 Superfund sites awaiting cleanup, and approximately three to four million children live within one mile at heightened risk of cancer, birth defects, and brain damage. The report profiled five of the most dangerous sites in each of the 10 most populous states. Disproportionate numbers of low-income Americans and people of color live near the sites, according to the report. Texas' five most dangerous sites are Alcoa in Point Comfort/Lavaca Bay, Gulfco Marine Maintenance in Brazoria Co., Jasper Creosoting Company, Inc. in Jasper Co., R&H Oil in Bexar Co., and Star Lake Canal in Jefferson Co. Read the full report at www.americanprogress.org. D.M.